As you probably all know by now, on June 8th we’ll have a snap UK General Election….if/when the House of Commons votes for one tomorrow. I won’t come back to it until after the local elections are well out of the way.
In the meantime, on May 4thelectors across Wales will go to the polls to elect new councils. After five years in charge, here’s my verdict on how Labour have performed in Bridgend.
A running theme in local government over the last term was cuts. Bridgend Council (BCBC) have had to do the same amount of work with less, though that was eased somewhat in the latest budget.
Some budget pressures are unavoidable due to an ageing population and changes to the law on how social services and social care need to be provided. Others come down to harsh choices – the recent decision to cut the schools budget, for instance.
I’d say that, by and large, the cuts have been spread out and every council department has had its fair share of pain – including staff. A consequence is increased outsourcing, downsizing and reliance on the voluntary/Third Sector (Halo and Awen, for instance) which relinquishes some element of democratic control and may – in the longer term – lead to justified questions over what local government has to do and what they can afford to drop.
The last five years has seen the implementation of the Local Development Plan (LDP) – a process which will restart during the coming five-year term. The only serious problem I can think of is the Parc Slip opencast restoration but that’s beyond BCBC’s control and limited progress has been made.
From what I’ve seen of Planning Committee meetings, councillors ask good questions and are given appropriate and detailed answers by officers.
The latest all-Wales planning performance report (pdf) revealed BCBC has one of the fastest application turn around rates at 60 days, compared to the Welsh average of 77. They’re also successful in 80% of appeals (Wales 66%) and are amongst the fastest local authorities to take enforcement action and respond to enforcement complaints.
Ignoring the future “two bag rule” for a moment, rubbish collections over the last five years have been “satisfactory”. However, Bridgend has gone from one of the top recyclers to mid-table in a short period of time. With the prospect of big fines from the Welsh Government it may have led to the controversial new rubbish collection proposals being implemented.
In 2015-16, Bridgend recycled or re-used 59% of the rubbish compared to the Welsh average of 62% (pdf – p2). We’re not far behind….until you add fly-tipping statistics. In 2011-12 there were 684 recorded fly-tipping incidents in Bridgend, by 2015-16 that had risen to 1,086. Could the new waste contract lead to things getting worse?
There’ve also been well-publicised complaints about: missed collections, changes to business collections and inconvenient locations of local recycling centres. The service has noticeably worsened since Kier bought out May Gurney, but things could go downhill rapidly if the new waste collection service doesn’t hit the ground running in June.
Economic Development & RegenerationD
If this were based on the second half of the term the grade would be higher, but I have to judge it on the full five years.
The term has been marked by the “recovery” from the Great Recession and, economically-speaking, Bridgend hasn’t done as badly as other authorities – which is lucky. Concerns over the future of the Ford engine plant aside, the big issue is the future of town centres.
Efforts to regenerate Pencoed will be hamstrung by the level crossing, but it’s unlikely the bridges will be modified/replaced for a long time as Cardiff-Swansea electrification keeps getting pushed back. Maesteg town centre has had a sympathetic revamp but there are question marks over the future of the indoor market.
I doubt the Rhiw Gateway will be a game-changer for Bridgend. It’s better than what was there before but not at the level needed to make a difference and I doubt de-pedestrianisation will make much of a difference either. With a lack of money around and changes in shopping habits we’ll have to make the best of what we’ve got and that’s going to be difficult regardless of who’s in power.
Then there’s Porthcawl. In fairness progress has been made on event/tourism development, the Jennings Building and the harbour, but as for Salt Lake and Coney Beach – it’s dead, isn’t it? It’s about time BCBC admitted it. The Wales Audit Office ought to investigate the land deal, so that’s an appeal to AMs or their staff reading this to refer it to them (I’m surprised they haven’t already).
Parks, Playgrounds & Cemeteries
“A bit better than satisfactory” sums it up. This is an area BCBC shares responsibility with town and community councils so not everything can be pinned on them.
Maintenance of equipped play areas seems to vary depending on where in the county you are, but in general they look safe but aren’t always the most inviting places.
One noticeable thing in this period of austerity is less regular grass cutting – which could be a weather issue as much as costs. There are also drainage problems in the Coychurch Crematorium extension (again usually a weather issue) – which is due to eventually be extended again.
Dog fouling isn’t as bad as it used to be but there are still “hot spots” and it’s still left on pavements – which hints at lax enforcement by BCBC. Then there’s the controversial decision to either close public toilets or hand responsibility over to town and community councils. Some of these toilets seemed poorly-maintained or in the wrong places anyway (like the ones under the Rhiw), but this could turn out to be an inconvenience in the longer run and not the best advert.
Considering the pressure the highways budget has been under – it’s usually low down the list of priorities – council staff have done well. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been problems: streets off main roads are often poorly maintained, as are pavements and some rights of way. There’s also a big problem with poor surfaces on unadopted roads (Parc Derwen being a case in point) – planning conditions perhaps need to be strengthened there.
BCBC have successfully overseen the conversion of streetlights into low energy (but often brighter) LED ones – meaning they can be kept on for longer, lessening the the threat of them being turned off to save money(as existed a few years ago).
There are questions as to whether road safety is being properly factored into new developments, as well as long-standing concerns over the A48, the road between Bryncethin and Blackmill and congestion at major junctions – particularly J36 of the M4. Another persistent bugbear is BCBC’s attitude to free parking in town centres.
Leisure & Cultural Services
I doubt everyone will agree, but the partnership between BCBC and Halo Leisure appears to be going pretty well. Visits to sports and leisure centres are above the Welsh average with Bridgend pushing towards the better performing authorities in Wales (pdf – p26).
As far as I know no leisure centre services have been threatened, while Bridgend Rec has undergone a significant redevelopment – though whether the service is better now than before is up for question following a downsizing of the facilities. The proposed re-development of Maesteg Town Hall into a “cultural hub” could also have been better explained and managed.
The library service in Bridgend was recently praised, with the re-location of Bridgend library being successful despite initial concerns. Overall satisfaction levels with the library service stand at a whopping 97%.
If this were based solely on building new schools then it would probably be an A, but even when you look at school results in isolation performances are above expectations but not spectacularly so.
In 2017, most schools in Bridgend county were either in the top “green”or average “yellow” bands of the Welsh Government’s school banding system. 11 schools were in the “needs improvement”orange band, while no schools in the bottom “red” category.
In 2016, Bridgend secured improved GCSE results for the fifth year in a row (67.2% achieving 5 A*-C grades) – reportedly the “best ever” – and above the Welsh average (66.6%). There’s a similar picture with A-Levels. However, average points score performances are….average at best (pdf – p21).
The only black marks are teething problems at some of Bridgend’s flagship new schools, like Archishop McGrath RC High and Coleg y Dderwen, which have either (temporarily) ranked poorly in school rankings or been caught up in other problems – in the case of the former an art exam scandal. You can argue that too much money is being pumped into capital spending and not enough on actually running the schools.
C- (Adult), D- (Child)
Some of the big developments here include the implementation of the Social Services & Wellbeing Act – which is supposed to result in a more personalised service – as well as the gradual outsourcing of “home helps”/domiciliary care. In the case of the latter, companies providing similar services in other local authorities have pulled out of contracts due to lack of funding and the implementation of the living wage (care workers are poorly paid as it is) – BCBC will need to be careful it doesn’t happen here, but we can at least say we have a very low “bed blocking” rate (pdf – p15).
There’ve been particular concerns in Bridgend over the recruitment and retention of social workers, with recruitment agencies driving up the price of hiring experienced staff, leading to shortages of workers or an over-reliance on inexperienced trainees (Recruitment problems stifle Bridgend social services).
I don’t think there’ve been any significant complaints about services for looked-after children (apart from how some things are administered), but there have been over foster placements – with Bridgend having one of the highest rates of cared-for children having three or more placements during a year (pdf – p19). One slip up there can have a devastating effect on a young person’s life.
The most recent example is the Public Services Ombudsman review, where BCBC initially refused to repay more than £3,000 to a former looked-after child after his savings were poorly monitored. BCBC eventually did the right thing, but hid behind the rules. It’s completely unacceptable whichever way you look at it.
There are, unquestionably, serious problems here that will need to be addressed by the incoming administration because I suspect there are bubbling scandals that haven’t been made public yet, and when they are….
Compared to Carmarthenshire’s Mark James, Bridgend’s Chief Executive (Darren Mepham) is a saint. No autocracy here. Though officers still hold sway, Bridgend isn’t quite an “officer-led” authority. I’ve seen councillors argue robustly against official recommendations (planning mainly) and officers have taken suggestions on board properly.
Sickness levels amongst BCBC staff rank as the 6th worst of the 22 Welsh councils (pdf – p27) and high sickness levels are usually the first sign of serious morale problems.
As is a typical problem in the public sector, the internal management structure seems convoluted with too many chiefs. I’ve heard horror stories about the standard of personnel management in some BCBC departments – particularly by lower and mid-ranked managers: nepotism, dubious promotions, bullying. With the council likely to shrink to no more than a third of the size it was in 1996, these problems can only get worse, while the introduction of things like “hot-desking” (as office functions are centralised on Angel Street) will no doubt be a culture shock.
Openness, Transparency & Public Engagement
I hate buzzwords, but “engagement” by local authorities is more important than ever due to declines in local press reporting.
It’s likely that part of the reason groups like Change for Bridgend have emerged (as well as the local Facebook pages) is many people don’t feel like they’re listened to, believe decisions are either approved before they go out for consultation or not explained very well, and perhaps don’t understand what councillors can do – their role being reduced in many respects to a glorified rubber stamp.
Most stuff coming out of BCBC is PR fluff; alright you would expect that, but the amount of objective/neutral reporting is thin on the ground. Part of that is because the Glamorgan Gazette isn’t what it used to be (and Bridge FM isn’t geared to cover local politics), part of it is lack of transparency by the council – which leads to people jumping to conclusions to fill information gaps or resorting to FOI requests.
BCBC have made some steps to building up its social media presence and have a pretty good public inquiries/front of house service (by all accounts), but it’s not enough. The website is about 10 years out of date for a start. We need to be far better informed about how councillors are holding officers and cabinet members to account as well as decisions made on our behalf.